The Céleusta enterprise. The sailing dinghy that crossed the Pacific

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Céleusta, the Pirelli Laros 80 adapted mast and boom, on its arrival in Polynesia on August 11, 1969
Céleusta, the Pirelli Laros 80 adapted mast and boom, on its arrival in Polynesia on August 11, 1969

In the summer that will forever be remembered for the American landing on the moon there was another landing, historically less relevant perhaps, but epic nonetheless. It is the one accomplished by three Italians who left the Peruvian coast in June 1969 aboard a sailing dinghy to reach French Polynesia after seventy days of sailing and more than 4,000 miles traveled. Here is the account of the Céleusta and its crew, which we can bring back to you thanks to the thoughts of two crew members, one kept a diary in English, the other recorded his thoughts on audiotape. There would also be more than 12,000 meters of footage, which has never been published.

The genesis of the Céleusta enterprise.

Arrival in Polynesia. From left, 32-year-old Vittorio Macioci, 50-year-old Mario Valli, 37-year-old Sergio Croci
Arrival in Polynesia. From left, Vittorio Macioci 32 years old, Mario Valli 50 years old, Sergio Croci 37 years old

Fall 1967, at his home in Narni, Umbria, Mario Valli, 50 and a former naval commander now directing a sailing center, met Sergio Croci, a 37-year-old assistant director who had also worked with Fellini and who had a plan to organize a round-the-world sailing trip to be documented and turned into a film. Also discussed in the evening were Croci’s other film and documentary projects, which brought up the idea of crossing the Pacific by dinghy. Valli, retired with a family and unconvinced by the prospect of being away from home for about two years and completing the round-the-world trip, however, was immediately convinced by the Pacificio idea. The adventure of the Céleusta had begun, the name Croci decided on for the dinghy, derived from the name of the man who set the pace for rowers on ancient Greek and Roman frigates. Recruitment of the third crew member was dead simple. At Bar Canova in Rome’s Piazza del Popolo, Croci meets with screenwriter Vittorio Macioci, 32, and tells him about the upcoming venture. Macioci, who was unoccupied at the time, asked if he could participate, despite having no experience at sea.

The Céleusta aboard the Peruvian tugboat that brought it 90 miles off the coast
The Céleusta aboard the Peruvian tugboat that brought it 90 miles off the coast

Thus began the search for sponsors and backing, as the budget of the three was very tight-Mario Valli was a pensioner, Croci and Macioci lived on gimmicks and help from family and friends. The three managed to get Pirelli to supply the dinghy, a Laros 80, modified with wood and stainless steel for mast installation. Fiat provided the film equipment to film the feat, Star (the nut one) provided a large amount of pre-cooked food instead. Céleusta was presented on November 7, 1968, at the Naval League headquarters on Ostia beach. About a year and a half after genesis, the adventure was about to get underway, with virtually no knowledge of each other and no common nautical experience, Céleusta was ready to take the three of them across the Pacific. The dinghy was transported to Peru by merchant ship, while the three traveled to South America separately. Macioci was the first to leave, also by ship, for Peru, Mario joined him two months later by plane while Sergio arrived in Peru only a week before departure.

A “difficult” departure from Peru.

The route taken by the Céleusta, an impressive 4,119 miles from Callao (Peru) to Raroia (Polynesia)
The route taken by the Céleusta, an impressive 4,119 miles from Callao (Peru) to Raroia (Polynesia)

On Sunday, June 2, 1969, the Laros 80 Céleusta was taken from Callao miles off the Peruvian coast, towed by a tugboat. From there the Céleusta would follow the Humboldt Current along the coast of Peru and then catch the trade winds about 5 degrees off the Equator, toward Polynesia. Arriving about 90 miles from Peru, it took more than two hours of time and four teams of sailors to put the dinghy, which weighed about two tons, and the cargo of about another two tons, placed on a tugboat dinghy, into the water, not without difficulty. It is now nighttime, and the line that ties the tugboat to the dinghy carrying the cargo and two Peruvian sailors breaks.

In the aluminum containers, the crew stowed several liters of drinking water
In the aluminum containers, the crew stowed several liters of drinking water

In the darkness of the night, the tug drifts away and the three fall asleep, among the waves of the Pacific and what little they managed to salvage of the cargo. In fact, on June 2, 1969, they found themselves in the middle of the Pacific without ever having spent a day together at sea. The second day is spent trying to get the now-soaked cargo to safety and fix the sails, with the atmosphere bordering on tragic, according to the diary of Macioci, the last recruited of the three, who despite his nautical experience is seasick. As soon as the mainsail swells, the boat sets off fast, and once the fixed rudder is set, the three of them try to arrange the gear, or what’s left of it. All fishing equipment, for example, was lost, but so were hygiene supplies: soap was “mysteriously” all left on the tug, as was toothpaste (but there are toothbrushes!).

At the stern, the crew carved out a small deckhouse by placing a waterproof tarp over the tubulars
At the stern, the crew carved out a small deckhouse by placing a waterproof tarp over the tubulars

Hope comes from the radio

What is left after the transfer from the dinghy to the raft is little, but actually the first, painful, decision is to get rid of some of the cargo: clothes, airtight containers, casseroles, 40 kilograms of provisions. From there the adventure begins, with eight sunless days, with the crew indolent and tired, sleeping as soon as they can do so, and managing to agree on one rule, the night watch shifts: from 8 p.m. to midnight Sergio, from midnight to 4 a.m. Mario, and from 4 a.m. to 8 a.m. Vittorio. The overcast weather does not allow for astronomical observations, so for more than two weeks the Céleusta sails only based on estimates. Finally after about 10 days, they are able to make radio contact with Rome-the first connection between “Italia 1” and the prearranged service channel before departure. It is a moment of joy that restores hope to all the crew on board; several radio amateurs log on to listen to the conversation.

Commander Mario Valli communicates via radio.
Commander Mario Valli communicates via radio.

Forced cohabitation and some boat failures, such as the breakage of one of the four stern flaps around the 40th day of sailing, and the increasing scarcity of food and drinking water on board, put a serious strain on the successful completion of the enterprise. The three manage to catch a few fish, such as a dorado and a gempylus, thanks to a fishing line and a twisted nail used as a hook. Keeping the trio’s hope alive are radio links, where Mario finds out his children’s school results after report cards, for example. But the climate on board is far from easy, amid stench, arguments, uncertainty about location, and food rationing. “If I had a choice, in normal life, I wouldn’t even go for coffee with one of them. So would they” “I am reading Kon-Tiki. I realize that they were a much more cheerful gang than ours,” Vittorio Macioci notes in his diary.

The lifeboat was being used by Sergio Croci to make shots of the Céleusta
The lifeboat was being used by Sergio Croci to make shots of the Céleusta

Finally, Polynesia!

Then comes the unexpected first radio contact with Polynesia: this is a very good signal, meaning the course is right. They tell the Céleusta that two planes will bring packages to the raft the next day. The three crew members don’t miss a few requests, some for a packet of Gauloises, some for a cold beer, some for wine. The next day, the red spinnaker is opened and the service boat is put to sea, a flare is prepared to make oneself more visible. But no dice, the noise of the plane, though waited all day, is not to be heard. Over the radio at the end of the day came confirmation: the plane (eventually only one) would fly over the area for a long time, but would not find the boat.

Commander Croci contentedly displays a giant dorado specimen
Commander Croci contentedly displays a giant dorado specimen

But then the next day again, they say, they will send a boat to look for them. And this time a boat can be seen on the horizon, the rockets go off, the Céleusta goes alongside the biscuit of the Onnis. Vittorio rushes aboard, grabs supplies, returns to the dinghy. Probably within two days the Céleusta will see land. Finally the arrival, after seventy days of sailing. On August 10, 1969 at 5:15 p.m., the dinghy passed into the reef in front of Polynesia, in Raroia Atoll. Entry into the bay is difficult because of the weather; it is not until the following day at 9:30 a.m. that the schooner Moana Rau tows the dinghy, and at 5:30 p.m. on August 11, 1969, the crew finally touches land, having crossed the Pacific Ocean from Peru to Polynesia covering 4,199 miles in a sailing dinghy of only 20 feet. An incredible and too little remembered story.

*The account of Céleusta’s feat is based on the content of the Rai podcast “Sulla Stessa Barca” (2018) and some reports published in 1969 within the weekly magazine “Epoca.” Photos are taken from reports.

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